This week, Rockstar is re-releasing Grand Theft Auto V on PS4 and Xbox One. The new version, which also comes to PC in January, has better graphics, new music, and a new first-person mode. You can now play the the bulk of the game—shooting, driving, skydiving, sexing—in first-person.
It is bananas.
I figured first-person mode would be cool, just based on that first promotional video Rockstar shared when they announced it:
After all, there's a reason that people have been modding first-person modes into various versions of Grand Theft Auto for years. I did not, however, anticipate that an integrated FPS mode would be this cool, or that it would reshape my conception of Grand Theft Auto.
I'm fairly certain that we'll see variations of "it feels like a completely different game!" floating around the Internet this week, as people play and talk about the new mode. There's a reason people will say that, however, and that's because… it feels like a completely different game.
I spent a good chunk of this weekend playing a PS4 copy that Rockstar sent me, and am about 12 or so hours into the game. (All of the gifs in this post were captured by me as I played on PS4.) As far as story progress goes, I've completed the jewelry store heist, and Trevor is now living down in Los Santos. I've tried to do as many side activities as possible, but there's so much to do in this game that I still have only re-played a fraction of it. Hell, there are still a lot of things I didn't do the first time around. I'd forgotten how absurdly large GTA V is.
Anyway, here's how FPS mode works: When you play the new version of the game, the view-adjust button has a new setting that puts you in first person. It's seamlessly integrated into every aspect of the game—if you want, you can play the entire game in first-person, barring cutscenes, some minigames (no first-person yoga, alas), and a few short in-game scripted moments.
Are you ready for some gifs? Let's do it.
Climb into a car and you'll see a smooth first-person animation as your character opens the door and sits down:
Hold up a liquor store, and you'll watch the terrified clerk empty the register:
Pull a heist, and you'll have a much closer view of the action:
Climb to the top of a mountain, and you'll feel a lot more like, well… like you're on top of a mountain.
And on, and on, and on.
How does first-person mode work? How does the game run? Is it fun to play? The short answers: It works well, it runs well, and it's extremely fun to play. You know how everyone jokes about Skyrim with guns? This is like that. I know, I know. But it is.
I haven't played the Xbox One version yet, but the PS4 version of the game runs at what feels to me like a solid 30fps frame-rate. There are probably some dips when things get wild on screen, but by and large it feels responsive and satisfying to play, more Destiny than Assassin's Creed Unity. The default control scheme is closer to a standard FPS than GTA, meaning that you can start running with a click of the left thumbstick, lob a grenade while aiming a gun, and bring up iron sights with the left trigger. Hooray, no more mashing the X button to sprint!
You can adjust the control scheme to a few different presets, and while I never quite found one that matched up with what I expect from an FPS, most of the control oddities are minor. (For example, the sneak button is tied to the PS4's X button by default. Prime controller real estate, considering I rarely use that function.)
You snap to cover in first-person, but there's a nice option to have the game flip out to third-person when you're in cover, snapping back to first-person when you leave it. It winds up making gunfights much more manageable than in the last-gen version of the game, because you immediately know when you're in cover and when you're not.
Whichever of the game's three protagonists you're controlling, his body will have an unusual amount of presence in your game. Look down, and you'll see his legs. Climb into a car, and you'll see a fluid animation of him climbing behind the wheel and hot-wiring it. Get thrown off of a bike and the camera goes flipping through the air, landing on the ground with your cheek on the pavement, a bloody hand directly in front of your eyes. GTA V now feels like an open-world game for the GoPro era.
In terms of shooters, it feels closest to Far Cry, given that series' commitment to putting you in the body of your avatar. But actually, GTA V's FPS mode just as often reminded me of the 2008 first-person parkour game Mirror's Edge. (I know!)
When running from the police, you can climb fences, jump off of low balconies, land with a tactical roll, and generally throw yourself through the world in a way that's unusual for a first-person shooter. One of my favorite new activities is to commit a crime and attract the attention of the police, then attempt to flee them without using any weapons. All at once, GTA V becomes a breathless first-person fleeing simulator.
Last year I wrote about two of my longstanding design gripes with the GTA series—the map is difficult to use, and aiming is flat-out lousy. Happily, both things have been significantly improved in the new version of the game.
Rockstar has adjusted the aiming in the new version, and everything (finally) works like you'd expect it to. Aiming no longer causes the reticle to shoot upward, so the game now functions like any other third- or first-person shooter. I still wish there were an option to make the reticle persistent when I'm not aiming, but even without that option, aiming feels natural. Navigation is also improved. You can now call up a little quick-access box and toggle through possible destinations, all without leaving the game. It's not as smooth as it could be, but it's an improvement.
GTA games have always put a strong focus on their protagonists, and GTA V was no different. As I switched between Michael, Franklin and Trevor, I was always aware of which guy I was controlling because he was right there in the middle of the screen.
Now that I'm playing the game in first-person, I feel much more removed from the protagonists. They still talk and yell all manner of annoying stuff when I'm in a gunfight, but most of the time, it just sort of feels like me playing the game. I'm pretty sick of those three dudes, so it's actually a nice way to get some distance from them, instead of having their mugs in my face all the time.
I'm not unaware of who I am as I play—Trevor's hands are covered in scrapes and tattoos, etc.—but I feel disconnected from the characters in a way that I actually like. That disconnection makes me play the game differently—I used to take the time to customize my character's clothes and look, but now, I don't even care.
I'm sure part of that is that I've already played a lot of GTA V, but it's also because I just don't think about the main characters as much, since I can't see them. I'm a big fan of removing clutter and making games as immersive as possible, and first-person GTA achieves an entirely new level of immersion for the series.
At this point, I'd like to think that people are over being scandalized by violence in GTA games. We don't have to like it or anything, and the games' extreme violence is absolutely worthy of critique, but I do hope that we've moved past clutching our pearls and worrying about the children. (Though as the NSFW gifs you're about to see will show you, parents (still) shouldn't let their kids with a mile of this game.)
With all that said, hoo boy, GTA's infamous violence and sex both take on a whole new potency when viewed through the first-person perspective.
The first time I opened fire on a group of civilians I was a little bit shocked, and I haven't felt shocked by a GTA game in years. As I ran up to a guy on the street and killed him with a hatchet—in first person view—I could already see the new highlight reels on the evening news.
Have you heard you can have sex with prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto? Because you can! And now, you can pay them to give you a beej in your car in first-person.
Basically, everything smutty and shocking and moral-panic-inducing about GTA is significantly intensified in first-person. The harrowing gunfights are more harrowing, the wild car chases are wilder, the shocking massacres are more shocking, and the tasteless sex exploitation is even tasteless-er. But then, the beautiful sunsets are even more beautiful, and the thrilling stunts and extreme-sports activities are even more thrilling and extreme. The game contains multitudes, as always, and now those multitudes have been multiplied.
The new-gen version of GTA V has a fair bit of new stuff in addition to first-person mode, though it's mostly tucked in at the margins. A lot of the new stuff is exclusive to people who already owned the game and have it tied to their Rockstar Social Club account—there's a full list here.
Those things include some new stock car races, which are pretty fun, if only because I'm much more into racing now that I can do it in first-person. There are some new weapons in the gun shop, including the hatchet I mentioned earlier, some antique weapons, and a futuristic rail gun that looks absolutely absurd, but which I've only used at the target range. Michael also gets to solve a murder mystery, which I'm excited to try but haven't unlocked yet.
There's also a ton of new music, an enhancement that makes itself known gradually. If you've played a lot of GTA V, you'll find yourself hearing a new tune and thinking, "Hey, is that new? I can't remember…" My favorite station, Non-Stop Pop, has a healthy new-tune infusion, and as Gorillaz' "Feel Good, Inc." came on my car radio, I realized just how happy I was to have some new stuff to listen to.
There are also some additions and enhancements to GTA Online, which now also includes first-person mode. I've hardly dipped my toes into that, seeing as how the game's servers are barely populated. I'm sure that I or one of my fellow Kotaku colleagues will play and keep an eye on GTA Online as it goes, but I don't have much to say about it at the moment.
For all the technical wizardry on display in the original release of GTA V, and as cool as the new three-protagonist idea was, a lot of the time the game felt about as formulaic as it did fresh. That formula hasn't really changed in the new version—it's the same game, after all—but thanks to first-person mode, this new version really does feel like a whole other thing.
In porting their already successful game to new consoles, Rockstar could very easily have polished up the visuals, added a few new musical tracks, and called it a day. Instead, they chose to go well beyond that, and in the process have challenged what we should expect a Grand Theft Auto game to look, feel, and play like in the future.
Aided by its new perspective, the updated version of GTA V takes everything we loved and loathed about GTA V—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and doubles down. There's no going back after this, and while Rockstar's next open-world games will doubtless still default to third-person, they'll be left feeling inadequate if they don't include first-person as well. Thanks to one well-executed idea, Grand Theft Auto has been transformed.